Vicente Guerrero (1783-1831) was a hero of the Mexican fight for independence from Spain. The second president of the Mexican Republic, he was an ardent defender of Indian rights and a harsh opponent of social and economic inequalities in his country.
Vicente Guerrero lived during a crucial period of Mexican history. In the early 19th century the Spanish colony of New Spain was convulsed by Joseph Bonaparte's usurpation of the Spanish throne. Deep-seated rivalries between Spaniards and Creoles suddenly increased. Mobs of Indians led by Fathers Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos roamed through the countryside killing, looting, calling for independence, and demanding a place in a society dominated by a Spanish aristocracy. The role of the wealthy Church came under attack as did Spain's economic and political policies toward the colony.
Guerrero was born on Aug. 10, 1783, in the village of Tixtla. His parents were humble peasants, and under the caste system the mestizo Guerrero did not receive a formal education. He was forced to earn a living by working as a muleteer.
When the revolutionary movement led by Father Hidalgo broke out in 1810, Guerrero joined it. He soon achieved the rank of captain, showing superior tactical ability and outstanding courage. It was, however, under the leadership of Hidalgo's successor, Father Morelos, that Guerrero proved his military qualities. Morelos entrusted him to carry on the revolution in the south. With weapons and supplies captured from royalist forces Guerrero began to build his army. Despite some initial setbacks, he staged several successful attacks against Spanish forces, and Morelos rewarded his victories by raising him to the rank of colonel. From a ragged band of less than 100, his army grew into a militant force of over 1, 000 men.
By 1815, however, the revolutionary tide had begun to turn. Morelos was captured and executed by the Spaniards. Other insurgent leaders were also captured, scattered, or pardoned. Guerrero's army in the south suffered the brunt of the Spanish onslaught. Yet he managed to continue the fight. Deserted by some of his men, persecuted by royalist troops, for several years he carried on guerrilla warfare. In 1818 the Spanish viceroy even used Guerrero's elderly father to try to induce him to surrender. But Guerrero refused and, gathering his soldiers, explained to them that his father had come to offer him positions and rewards. "I have always respected my father, " he said, "but my country comes first."
Imbued with Morelos's ideas, Guerrero believed in what he was fighting for. Like Morelos, he despised the existing social distinctions based on race as well as the monopoly exerted by the Spaniards over most of the important government jobs. He advocated land distribution and favored the abolition of the Church's special privileges. A staunch Catholic, he nevertheless favored civil registration of marriages, births, and deaths, and public education not controlled by the Church. He supported the proposition that only Catholicism should be allowed in Mexico. His greatest contribution, however, was in his determination to expel the Spaniards from his homeland. More than any other insurgent leader, he kept alive the independence cause at a very difficult time.
The 1814 restoration of conservative Ferdinand VII to the throne of Spain dealt a heavy blow to liberalism. However, the 1820 Riego revolt among troops destined for South America forced Ferdinand to change his antiliberal position and to restore the 1812 Constitution. The victory of liberalism in Spain alarmed Mexican conservatives and reactionaries. They feared that a liberal Spain would not protect their properties and privileges and would side with Mexican liberals. The only solution, they reasoned, would be independence from Spain. To achieve this, they secured the services of an ambitious officer in the Spanish army, Col. Agustin de Iturbide, who soon marched against Guerrero.
Unable to defeat him, Iturbide invited Guerrero to join him. The two met at Iguala, where Iturbide convinced the simpleminded patriot to join in issuing the Plan of Iguala. The plan called for independence, equal treatment for Spaniards and Creoles, and supremacy of the Catholic religion. These three principles were to be guaranteed by the army. Envisioning the fulfillment of his long struggle, Guerrero supported Iturbide, and on Sept. 27, 1821, the two marched into Mexico City proclaiming the independence of Mexico.
Iturbide, however, was less interested in Mexico's problems than in furthering his own personal ambitions. In May 1822 he crowned himself Agustin I, Emperor of Mexico, and moved to extend his empire into Central America. Guerrero soon realized that the policies of the newly established regime resembled only faintly the ideals of the Hidalgo-Morelos movement. Guerrero together with other insurgent leaders, aided by Antonio López de Santa Ana, commander of the port of Veracruz and future dictator of Mexico, forced Iturbide's abdication in 1823.
Following the collapse of the empire, a federalist republic was established with insurgent leader Guadalupe Victoria as Mexico's first president. In the presidential elections of 1828 Guerrero ran against conservative Gen. Manuel Gómez Pedraza, a former officer in the royalist army and Victoria's minister of war. As a hero of the independence movement, Guerrero was perhaps the more popular candidate. But Pedraza used the army to apply pressure on the state legislature and to win the election. Unhappy with the electoral result, Guerrero, together with Santa Ana, staged a rebellion forcing Pedraza into exile.
On April 1, 1829, Guerrero assumed the presidency. He soon found out that to govern was more difficult than to fight. He was generous with his opponents, pardoning many of them. But at a time when Mexico needed strong leadership, he was vacillating and timid. Appeals to patriotism failed to convince the states that they should contribute to the national treasure or to reconcile the Mexican aristocracy to the fact that they were being ruled by a mestizo. Guerrero's presidency marked the assertion of Mexican indianismo. It frightened Creoles and conservatives and led to their reaction.
Opposition increased and became bitter. Early in 1830 the army, led by conservative Vice President Anastasio Bustamante, staged a revolt. Guerrero fled southward into the mountains, where for 4 years he had fought for Mexican independence. With some of his old comrades he now resisted Bustamante for a year. But early in 1831 he was enticed on board an Italian ship at Acapulco and betrayed by the captain, who turned him over to the government allegedly for 50, 000 pesos. Guerrero was declared mentally incapable and was afterward convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Despite many efforts to save his life, he was executed in Cuilapan on Feb. 14, 1831. The Mexican state of Guerrero was named in honor of his memory.
The best available study in English on Guerrero's revolutionary career is William Forrest Sprague, Vicente Guerrero, Mexican Liberator:A Study in Patriotism (1939). Information can also be found in William Spence Robertson, Rise of the Spanish-American Republics, as Told in the Lives of Their Liberators (1918). □